Training a dog to do something – whether it’s to sit, lay down or wait at the door rather than exploding through it – is an accumulation of baby steps. Like a “Pez dispenser” of tiny treats, the human rewards each miniscule step in the right direction and lures the dog onward. As you might imagine, getting a bouncy puppy to understand that the word “down” means “please stop leaping around the room and, instead, lay down and hold still” takes a remarkably long time.
You begin by rewarding eye contact. You hand over another treat when his little butt hits the floor. Yet another lures the dog’s nose toward the floor between his feet. Still another treat rewards elbows on the floor. The puppy hits a “jackpot” – treat after treat after treat – when his hips flop over and he looks like he might stay put for longer than 2-3 seconds. Then you repeat. Roughly 8 million times.
All the while, you, the teacher and observer, are looking only for baby steps to celebrate. This is no place for reprimands or frustration. Your voice stays gentle. You tone friendly and upbeat. Scolding is simply not constructive. When he backslides, as puppies do, without missing a beat or succumbing to frustration, you simply begin again where he was last successful. When you’ve lost the puppy’s attention (it happens), you stop, drop to the floor to dole out kisses and belly rubs. After all, there will always be another time to try again.
Progress will either be glacial or a tidal wave. There’s no way to predict. And it’s worth noting that the fact that the puppy responds to your command 16 times in a row today is irrelevant to his performance tomorrow. For the first few days at least, it is just as likely that you will be starting from scratch as it is that he will remember his new trick. Your job is to be as upbeat when you have to start over as you are when he remembers.
My husband missed puppy school the other day, so he was watching me to see what we’re working on this week. “Dang!” he exclaimed. “It’s just like yoga.” I looked at him quizzically as I dodged a sloppy puppy kiss. “Think about it.” he said, as he took the pups out to relieve their residual excitement and joy from their practice.
Learning how to do a yoga posture – whether it involves standing on one foot, perching in a precarious hand balance or folding forward – is an accumulation of baby steps. As you might imagine, mastering even the simplest of postures can take a long while. The more complicated ones can take months or even years. Just like training a puppy, it takes patience, persistence and a positive outlook to pull off these postures in a way that is safe and productive for your body. And, just like training a puppy, there is no guarantee that a new posture will “stick” right away. More often than not, the next time you practice, you will have to start from scratch. At least for a little while.
This can be frustrating. As you work on a yoga posture, the “Pez dispenser” of praise (heck, we’ll settle for simple acceptance) is also you. And, if you’re a normal human being, your eyes are probably more attuned to mistakes made rather than to baby steps to celebrate. What you may not be aware of is that you are just as susceptible to the destructive effects of criticism and scolding as a puppy. This is true even when (especially when!) you are scolding or criticizing yourself. When you’re on your yoga mat treat, treat yourself with the tenderness you would lavish on a puppy.
Like a puppy, I promise you will get better results from noticing and celebrating the things you do right. By focusing on each baby step, you reinforce helpful patterns that will become the foundation of your evolving posture. By breaking things down into tiny bits, you can more easily “lure” yourself to the next step along the way. By readily accepting mistakes as a cue to try again, you develop a willing persistence that will be your ticket to eventual success.
Puppies enthusiastically view a chance to try again as a chance to play. While this may be farfetched for you as you face a tough or particularly scary yoga posture, it is certainly plausible for you to approach each opportunity you get to try the posture as a chance to learn and grow and challenge yourself. When you do so, your positive approach will set the stage for some good, productive (and possibly even fun!) work whether or not you nail the posture with the same panache that you did last week.
We all know that yoga rarely stays on your sticky mat, right?
In the end, with the same gentle persistence, compassionate patience and cheerful attitude that you train a puppy, you are training yourself. You are training your eyes to turn away from mistakes made to notice the baby steps you’ve taken at work, within a difficult relationship, or in a new hobby. You are learning to pat yourself on the back at each tiny sign of growth. After all, whether glacial or with the sudden force of a tidal wave, growth is always something to celebrate.
And, if today isn’t a growth day, give yourself a quick hug and try again tomorrow.
PS Please forgive the sequential puppy essays. They say that yoga meets us exactly where we are … and this is where I’ve been!